David Jamieson

David Jamieson

A Socialist Politics of the National Question?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In his weekly column, Conter editor David Jamieson says pro-independence socialists must re-asses the national question.

The appearance of a Panelbase poll placing support for Scottish independence at 55 per cent, the same level as the no vote of 2014, has suddenly re-animated all corners of the independence movement. Both the SNP leadership, which said that it would not discuss the national question again until Covid-19 was dispatched, and the most (understandably) sullen elements, dejected by years of broken promises, were forced to think afresh the consequences of next years’ Scottish elections.

For pro-independence socialists, it is time we too re-assessed our arguments in the light of developments in recent years. Those things we said, and ways we organised in 2014, positive though many of those experiences and ideas were, are no longer adequate to task.

The national question has assumed a new weight in global politics. It has become unavoidable in a period of consistent shocks to, and mutations of, the globalised order. In at least some places, the right and far right (Brexit, Trump, Turkey, Italy etc) are answering the national question more successfully than the socialist left. What’s more, the neoliberal centre are ignoring the national question more successfully, possessing as they do the social weight and lack of interest in social change to afford such ignorance. We do not have these luxuries.

The classical Marxist criticism of social democracy always involved the accusation of the artificial separation of economics and politics. The two spheres had to be separated to make reform a plausible social compromise, and the practices naturally attuned with the philosophical limitations of a project which didn’t embrace a social totality and wasn’t interested in working class political power.

For a post-reformist party like the SNP, the locus of the split has shifted. The economy firmly elevated above the political sphere, the split is now between politics and politics. The SNP leadership can win elections (something it is very good at) but it will not confront any of the questions of sovereignty, democracy, and foreign policy dictated to it by the world condition of capitalist power.

In other words, it cannot confront the national question on a more than symbolic level. The longer a strategy for independence is held in abeyance, the wider a separation can be maintained between the symbolism and the substance of the national question.

Sturgeon herself learns her lessons well – it is one of the qualities that makes her such an effective politician at the level of symbolism. In 2016 she learned of the dangers of over-hasty action. In April 2019 she experienced a rare (if partial) defeat by her own conference floor, on some of the technicalities around independence economic policy (those of us who were there witnessed her visible shock). The mistake she had made was honesty, and to discuss the real strategic problems, as she saw them, of making Scottish independence coherent with dominant forces in the global system and local economic actors.

That is, she made fatally clear the symbolic character of her orientation on the national question. She will not venture political questions in a hurry again.

How, then, should socialists orientate on the national question? The answer is not with a separation of politics and economics.

We should not allow a perception that the socialist position on Scottish independence is reduced to: ‘after independence, the nationalists will want basically the same country with a different flag, whereas socialists want a different country with economic and social reform’.

This may be a part of what we argue, but it cannot be our programmatic attitude, let alone our analysis of the really existing political situation.

The false comforts provided by such a separating-out of politics and economics are manifold. Whereas vague ideas about equality are about as offensive as apple crumble, political questions are often difficult, potentially compromising and divisive. It is much easier to say ‘Green New Deal’ than to demand the political conditions that might make it a meaningful demand.

You can tell a propagandistic argument, not by the exuberance of its claims, but by the detachment of analysis and argument from strategy. It has become very common on the modern left to twin demands for economic reform with political conditions that debar them, and then rage at the short-sightedness of elites for not implementing reform. Besides the obvious misunderstanding of class power involved in such approaches, there is also a confusion about the course of change (not so strange, given the collapse of official reformism in recent decades).

Social change is a process, made of events. It is not an event, served by a process. We will know whether or not post-independence challenges for reform will be meaningful, based on what is won before any vote takes place, and in the two to three years between the vote and the launching of the new state.

There are several extreme pitfalls which would seriously stunt any progress. Just three would be:

1. A compromised referendum process, including any combination of the following clauses: a three question referendum, a referendum which establishes, or is conditional upon, any new British confederation, a special subsidiary legal process presided over by judges or other state actors, a commitment to a second or ‘confirmatory’ referendum, a super-majority threshold for independence.

2. Rapid accession to EU membership, not consequent on a democratic vote. In fact, the combination of the transition period with an accession process would provide the perfect conditions for the technocratic and managerial organisation of the new state. Likewise the integration of Scotland into Nato and the wider US-led security apparatus.

3. The failure to establish full monetary powers within the transition period: plans for so called Sterlingisation are obviously the most dangerous thrust here, and would involve a block to the establishment of a central bank, a fully-furnished industrial policy and much else besides.

All these hurdles overcome, the early years of the state would still be crucial. But economic, social and democratic reform can easily be circumvented before they are begun by the above methods.

It is no mistake that each of the above are already present in the field of official independence politics. Indeed they are either established, or are on their way to being established, as the official credos. Further, then, the claim of a socialist politics of the national question is not only that independence with (the possibility of) reform is threatened by official anti-politics nationalism, it is that independence of any, even the most symbolic, kind is threatened.

The above barriers mean an independence movement whose leadership is subservient to powers which are at best ambivalent, if not hostile, towards independence. At the same time, they mean ample opportunities for state obstruction, and the frustration of achievable popular constituencies for independence.

Finally, that politics has to assert consistently that foreign policy is essential to politics. Far too often an impression has been allowed to form that internationalism means talking to people in foreign countries.

What it means for socialists is that change at home is contingent upon control of foreign policy. The most deadly separation is the one that posits everything beyond the borders as the prerogative of the state.

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